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MASTERING THE MIND GAME
TEAM REVERSED ITS FIELD DURING COMEBACK AGAINST RAMS

Last season, Buffalo Bills President and General Manager Tom Donahoe liked what he saw on paper but couldn't dismiss what he watched on the field. The Bills were talented but often wilted in close games. He wanted a mentally tougher team, one that would get stronger when the stakes climbed higher.

Coach Mike Mularkey was hired partly based on his reputation for being a tough, disciplined player and a strong-minded coach with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bills are finally showing signs that they're handling difficult situations better. Mularkey has noticed a difference in the last two games.

"It's almost obvious to be mentally tough when you overcome the 0-4 start, when you overcome a disappointing loss on national TV," Mularkey said. "There have been many times where they had chances to say 'That's it' because they had experienced it in the past. Not one of them yet has done that."

The Bills had a miserable start but won three of their next four games before an embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots on ESPN. Last week, Buffalo was in trouble in the first half against St. Louis after Drew Bledsoe's pass for Lee Evans was tipped and intercepted and the Rams took a 10-0 lead on the next play.

That's when things started to change.

Buffalo tied the game just before halftime and outscored the Rams, 20-0, in the second half. It was during the Bills' initial comeback that Mularkey saw his team coming together. He insisted there is still room for improvement, but the comeback might have been a turning point to the season and, perhaps, their future.

"It was probably the 10-0 deficit last week against the Rams," Mularkey said. "A lot of the same, similar things happened with the turnover and the score. . . To me, that was a defining moment that these guys are a special group. I've said that before."

The next step comes Sunday in Miami, where the Bills are 1-4 in their last five games.

The Bills have played so well lately that even their statistics are feeding off one another. Take their production in the red zone, where many a drive stalled in the first four games. Their offense has been much more efficient in the last two games.

The Bills had just three touchdowns after getting inside the 20-yard line in their six losses, but they had 14 TDs in the same situation in their five victories. Seven have come in the convincing wins over St. Louis and Seattle. They had converted just 10 opportunities in the red zone in their first nine games.

Buffalo scored touchdowns on four of its six visits to the red zone against Seattle. The Bills had so many opportunities inside the 20 because they converted 9 of 15 on third down to keep drives going. Conversely, the Bills did a good job defending on third down. Seattle made just two visits to the red zone, in part because it was 3 of 9 on third down.

Pass protection and a better running game were big reasons for the improvement. Bledsoe has been sacked 10 times in the last seven games, three times in their five victories and seven times in their two losses. The Bills are 5-0 this season when Willis McGahee gains 100 yards rushing, 0-6 when he doesn't.

Mularkey was asked whether he saw something in Seattle's defense or had simply gone "crazy" with gimmick plays.

The Bills ran several misdirection plays, including two handoffs to receivers, and Bledsoe faked a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 before a lateral pass to McGahee for a 30-yard TD. They also had a successful onside kick.

"If you say that, we'd be crazy every game," Mularkey said. "It's based on what they're doing -- the right time and the right place. We did a lot of things against the Rams as well. Some of the things we've done this year have not looked good. People have gone, 'Boy, why would they do such dumb things as that?'

"It's just the nature of it. They're great when they work and not so great when they don't. Based on the situation, fourth-and-1, it was an ideal time to do that one play, the quarterback sneak pass."

Buffalo's remaining opponents have a combined 21-34 record. Pittsburgh (10-1) is the only one that has a winning record.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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